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by Heather Behrens
A tale of a large-headed dog. That's all it was. Just a blur, a vision, a dream. An early morning car ride on a quiet state road can lead to all sorts of sitings...tricks of the eyes...images on the landscape. A lonely, confused dog looking for a quick meal was all I saw. Or was it?
As I pulled the car over to the road's shoulder to peer into the low shrubs after the creature, there was certainly no mistaking this observation.
The beast stood about 20 inches high at the shoulders, moved and acted like a big house cat and had a short stubby tail only a couple of inches long. Looking a bit closer, I estimated the cat's weight at about 25 pounds. A ruff of hair surrounded its round face.
I strained to recall photos I've seen, trying to come up with some identifying characteristic. Then - without a second thought or a sound - the cat turned, melted into the shrubs and was gone. Quick now... could it possibly be a bobcat?
Having never seen a North American wildcat before on the east coast, my heart raced at the prospect of witnessing such a secretive animal. The occasion was made even more unusual by the fact that it was a daylight siting, while bobcats are typically nocturnal or twilight hunters.
Probably making its way back from an evening of hunting on hares, squirrels or birds, the bobcat was walking at a very slow trot as most bobcats do. They are not very fast runners - at best they can run 15 miles per hour.
A single cat is likely to kill a grouse or other prey about every other day. They move slowly and silently through the woods locating prey with keen sight and hearing, stalking within pouncing distance, and then rushing in for the kill. The hunt is reminiscent of a house cat after a mouse.
Usually, each cat hunts alone, but a female and her nearly grown kittens may work together, fanning out when they reach prey cover and frequently chasing hares into one another's jaws.
Pound for pound, the bobcat is probably one of the ablest fighters in New England. The bobcat's razor-sharp, retractable claws and long canine teeth are formidable tools for tackling prey or foe alike. A large bobcat can pull down and kill a weakened deer in deep snow.
Its aggressive behavior may explain why its closest cousin the lynx - whose range extends through most of Canada and Alaska - doesn't move south into the bobcat's range, which spans the lower 48 states and Mexico.
But what keeps the bobcat from extending its range northward? Scientists believe that snow depths in the north keep the bobcat from utilizing northern ranges. They just can't function in deep snow. Instead, they travel on roads, exposed shore and lake ice, logs, and in the tracks of other animals.
Meanwhile the lynx is extremely adept at travel in the snow. The lynx paw has about twice the supporting capacity in the snow as that of a bobcat paw. The lynx's foot may also be twice as large as a bobcat's, sometimes spreading to over four inches in diameter. In the winter, extra fur appears between the lynx's toes and around the edge of its paw. It essentially goes through the winter on snowshoes. This simple physiological difference may be what gives the lynx the upper hand over the bobcat in higher, more northern realms.
But here in New England, bobcat populations are faring quite well.
Unfortunately though, as women's fashions change and include long-haired animal pelts, trapping lynx and bobcat has become economically rewarding and the density of these wildcats have at times, cyclically dropped.
Besides humans and dogs as chief predators of the bobcat, the Great horned owl sometimes catches a young bobcat.
In the wild, bobcats have been known to live 12 years, with females producing one to four kittens per litter once a year. They remain sexually active until death. The kittens stay with the female until they are fairly well grown, or until autumn or early winter.
Despite its similarity with a large housecat or fat-headed dog, further studies only lead me to believe I encountered a bobcat.
It may still be controversial to claim that the other native wildcat - the catamount - is back, but the bobcat is alive, well and certainly more than just the focus of dreams, visions and tricks of the eyes. No matter how early in the morning one is traveling, or how many large-headed dogs are on the road....
Heather Behrens writes from the Vermont Institute of Natural Science in Woodstock, Vt.